This morning we began work on the second movement of Mendelssohn's String Quartet Op. 13. We spent a fair amount of time thinking about the structure of the movement, how the fugue subject worked in the different voices, how it developed throughout the movement. Our violinists are younger than me and the violist and are waiting to be filled with anything we can teach them in the realm of music theory, history, or string quartet playing in general. They initiated the formation of the group for their own education and are extremely organized and hard working, open to ideas and exploring. It is such a pleasure to be playing with them.
But it has been a long week for all of us and this compromised the preparation we were all able to do towards this second movement before meeting together. Towards the end of rehearsal, after long formal discussions, we turned to the opening and closing sections–slow, beautiful, chorale-like bookends to the movement. The intonation wasn't right. We tried to hold some chords, which helped but didn't fix it. Our first violinist asked us to play without her so she could imagine her part. As we played, I saw her bow her head in fixed concentration trying to imagine where her pitch should fall. We all played again. Still not there. Something was wrong with the balance, with overtones, with the way we were hearing the harmony. Her endlessly ebullient character sank into frustration, something I'd not seen in her before, and I could see how deeply she cared. We played again. And it still wasn't quite right. Another day, I said. It was better and it would come as we become more familiar with the phrase and the harmony.
What a thing it is to want something, to need something. A satisfaction unfulfilled that keeps us moving forward, keeps us from quitting. If it were easy, I don't think I would still be playing. If it were natural, I don't know that I would have ever become so engaged. I know that frustration, the feeling of self-doubt. But over the years I've become accustomed to its ebb and flow and have come to welcome it. It tinges times of pride with humility and begs for a breakthrough in the deepest troughs.
It is one thing to question the influences of Mendelssohn, to speak of fugal subjects and finding pitches. And it is also something to be with a person as they go through the inevitable trials of being a musician. There is something deeply satisfying about having the dialogue of teaching and learning. A way of seeing one's self in another's questions and of finding a larger trust in the process of life learning. We may or may not find the right intonation, but we'll be a step closer than we were before we tried.